The Two Faces of Regret
(Published in the Summer 1998 edition of the Yad Vashem Quarterly
"It is my fervent hope that the document: We Remember: A
Reflection on the Shoah, ...will indeed help to heal the wounds
of past misunderstandings and injustices. May it enable memory
to play its necessary part in the process of shaping a future
in which the unspeakable iniquity of the Shoah will never again
So writes Pope John Paul II in his correspondence to Cardinal
Edward Cassidy, president of the Commission for Religious Relations
with the Jews, responsible for preparing the 14-page document
on the Vatican's role in the Holocaust. The document, which has
taken 11 years to produce, has engendered strong reactions by
both Catholics and Jews. Many commentators have praised the document
as a positive first step for its message of repentance and remembrance.
Others have criticized it for not taking direct responsibility
for the Church's failure to ameliorate the attempted annihilation
of the Jewish people. The document has also been condemned on
other grounds such its failure to take responsibility for the
Church's promulgation of anti-Judaism, for its insistence on differentiating
between anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, and for its positive appraisal
of the role of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust.
A peculiar feature of the document is that it falls short of
recent pronouncements made by Pope John Paul II and representatives
of the church the world over. Eight years ago, Pope John Paul
II using the Jewish word teshuvah, said the Church itself had
to repent. The Pope has also undertaken many public acts to announce
the Church's positive sentiments towards the Jews, such as a visit
to the central synagogue in Rome, the establishment of diplomatic
relations with Israel, and statements condemning anti-Semitism
as a sin and recognizing the legitimacy of the Jewish religion.
Moreover, he organized an international conference of Catholic
scholars to reflect on the Church's role in teaching anti-Judaism.
As recently as Good Friday this year, he made the unprecedented
statement that the Jewish people "…has been crucified by
us for too long," and that not the Jews, "…not they,
but we, each and every one of us is responsible for Christ's crucifixion,
because we are all murderers of love."
Similarly, over the last few years, bishops from Germany, Poland,
France, Hungary and the Netherlands have acknowledged the Church's
guilt, expressed repentance and apologized to the Jews. The "French
Bishop's Declaration of Repentance" states that the French
Church "failed in her mission as a teacher of conscience"
in not acting against the Nazis. The German Church's document
recognizes that "Christians did not offer due resistance
to racial anti-Semitism" that lead to the genocide of the
Jewish people. The Vatican document, however, fails to reflect
this trend of the Church and its representatives towards admission
and acknowledgement of past misdeeds towards the Jews.
Dr. Yehuda Bauer, head of the Holocaust Research Institute at
Yad Vashem and Dr. Dina Porat, head of the Institute for the Study
of Contemporary Anti-Semitism and Racism at the Tel Aviv University,
agree that there is certainly a large gap between Pope John Paul
II's recent pronouncements and what is written in the document.
Bauer refers to the "revolutionary" letter written in
October 1987 by the pope to the Commission for Religious Relations
with the Jews. In the letter, the pope states that the covenant
between God and the Jews exists still and that Jesus' identity
as a Jew was a part of God's design to link the coming of the
messiah to the Jewish nation. These statements, says Bauer, are
contrary to classic Catholic thought.
Professor Israel Gutman, Chief Historian at Yad Vashem, believes
that it is important to place the document in its correct context.
He asserts that the document fails to reach expectations in unequivocally
admitting the Church's complicity in the Holocaust, but he regards
the document as representing the positive fruits of inter-Catholic
discussion and dialogue between Christians and Jews. The document
is also valuable in that it is intended for a very wide Catholic
audience, and all religious leaders. It is therefore a powerful
educational tool that will be used in sermons and discussions,
thereby bringing about a gradual change in the attitudes and beliefs
of Christians throughout the world.
Gutman recognizes the difficulty of change in institutions steeped
in religious dogma such as the Catholic Church, and therefore
appreciates the document as a positive step towards change. The
preamble to the document, written by the pope, expresses sincerity
and willingness to change the attitude of Catholics towards the
Jews. Gutman asserts that the most positive feature in the document
is its condemnation of anti-Semitism as a sin. However, he believes
that the document is essentially a compromise between those elements
in the Church desiring a clear admission of responsibility and
other conservative elements opposed to change and dialogue with
Porat also finds positive elements in the document including
its condemnation of all forms of discrimination, its reference
to the Shoah as a tragedy defying description, its confirmation
of the Jews as God's Chosen People and of it's description of
the Jews as the "elder brothers" of Christians. Like
Bauer, she also sees the educative value of the document, especially
as a means of silencing Holocaust deniers.
Despite these positive features, both Porat and Bauer find much
to criticize including the statement in the chapter entitled "Looking
together to a common future" in which the hope is expressed
that a new future will exist wherein "…there will be no more
anti-Judaism among Christians or anti-Christian sentiment among
Jews," which suggests that the latter is equal to the anti-Judaism
of the Church. Bauer quotes his American colleague, Priest Franklin
H. Littell, on this point. Littell insists that the centuries
of theological and cultural anti-Semitism in Christendom do not
compare so as to allow a statement that implies both dishonors
Porat also takes exception to the comparison of the Israeli-Palestinian
situation (referred to in the document as "the drama of the
Middle East") to the Holocaust and other racially based acts
of genocide that are listed in the document. This reference to
the Middle East seems to echo the Civilta Cattolica (1988) which
compares the Holocaust to the suffering of the Palestinians. Bauer
sees this as proof that anti-Semitic sentiments still exist in
some sectors of the Catholic Church.
One of the harshest criticisms of the document is that it attempts
to absolve the Church from all complicity in the Holocaust by
stating that: "The Shoah was the work of a thoroughly modern
neo-pagan regime. Its anti-Semitism had its roots outside Christianity
and, in pursuing its aims, it did not hesitate to oppose the Church
and persecute her members also". Instead of admitting the
Church's role in the Holocaust and in persecutions that preceded
it, the document apportions blame on individuals responsible.
Bauer believes that the Church's failure was a failure of leadership
and authority and that although there were Catholic individuals
who were prepared to aid Jews, "the pope's colleagues and
priests were not actively told to save the Jews". Bauer also
quotes Littell, who writes that attributing the Shoah to a "neo-pagan
regime" is "nothing more than a cop-out" and summarizes
the document as "too little to represent 11 years of committee
work...too late to resolve much of the damage of Christianity".
By claiming that Nazi anti-Semitism "had its roots outside
Christianity," the document essentially denies the relationship
between the Church's history of teaching and preaching anti-Judaism
and anti-Semitism. As Bauer asserts, "Without Christian anti-Semitism
there would have been no Nazi anti-Semitism." Indeed, Nazi
propaganda was a compilation of centuries of Church anti-Semitism.
To emphasize his view, Bauer quotes Littell:
We are left with the interpretation that "the long-standing
sentiments of mistrust and hostility that we call anti-Judaism"
arrived from outer space. The truth is that without centuries
of theological anti-Semitism, taught and preached by Christians
and confirmed as dogma by church officials, the tragedy of the
Shoah would never have befallen us.
Both Bauer and Littell stress the undeniable connection between
the Church and the Nazis. Adolf Hitler, himself a Roman Catholic,
received his first diplomatic victory from the Church with the
signing of the Concordat between the Vatican and the Führerstaat
on July 20, 1933. Not once during the war did the Church condemn
the Nazi crimes against the Jews. Moreover, when Hitler committed
suicide, the presiding officer, Cardinal Bertram of Breslau, of
the German Bishops' Conference instructed that a mass be said
in his memory (5 May 1945). Ironically, the very same Cardinal
Bertam is mentioned in a very positive light in the document.
Another controversial feature of the document is its assessment
of the role of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust. The document
states that "Pope Pius XII did personally or through his
representatives...save hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives".
Attached to the quote is a long footnote which attempts to substantiate
this claim. Bauer and Porat agree that Pius XII saved thousands
of Jews but reject the notion that he rescued "hundreds of
thousands". Geoffrey Wigoder, title?, believes that this
praise of Pius XII confirms that the Vatican would never condemn
Pius XII for his failure to speak out against the genocide of
the Jews. Gutman understands the praise of Pius XII as another
compromise between different elements in the Church. The controversy
over Pius XII has heralded the call from many quarters for the
Vatican to open its archives so that his role can be properly
and objectively investigated.